Drew Hunsinger was part of a nine-month team effort to build a cardboard boat. Last Friday, he admired the finished product in his Churchill technology class, a varnished kayak large enough to carry Hunsinger or one of his 11th-grade Churchill classmates.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” said Hunsinger.
“It is when it’s right,” replied tech teacher Ed Dennis.
ONCE AGAIN, Churchill’s boat was right. Two boats built by Churchill students dominated the field of 100-plus competitors in the 5th Annual Lake Accotink Cardboard Boat Festival on Sunday, June 6 in Springfield, Va. Churchill took first and second place overall and in the high-school age group; second and third place in the 15-50 age range; and won the pre-race “Most Likely to Float” award.
The competition inadvertently praised Churchill’s work. “When we were at the race, everyone knocked on the boat and questioned whether it was really made out of cardboard,” said Nathan Zamkov, a student on Churchill’s team.
Dennis has overseen an annual cardboard boat design since 1995. Churchill has won every boat race it entered, and Dennis had one word to explain the success: “Fred.”
Dennis refers to Fred Saxton, 76, a retired naval architect and electrical engineer who worked at the David Taylor Naval Surface Warfare Center in Carderock. Saxton began volunteering to help Churchill students with engineering projects in 1991, first with a hovercraft, and with all the cardboard boat projects in the past 10 years.
More than specifics about boat design, Saxton teaches the students “the patience to finish it. When something goes wrong, you don’t quit,” Dennis said. “That is something that kids don’t always understand in this day and age.”
“With about a quarter left, we had to decide if we were going to get it done or not,” said Zamkov.
“The whole idea is that they’re actually doing an actual engineering project,” said Dennis, who has seen team members go on to graduate from university engineering programs. “This country’s hurting for engineers,” he said.
STUDENTS BEGAN WORK on the project last September, and last Friday they were putting the final touches on Churchill’s two boats, sticking decals on the hull. They also built and adjusted two boat carriages designed to put minimal stress on the boats when transporting them to Sunday’s races.
Junior team member Kyle Holtz is thinking about studying architecture in college. He said that most of the pressure was off by the time the race started. “There was more pressure to get it done” than to win the race, Holtz said.
“It was such repetitive work,” said Zamkov. “You have to cut pieces of cardboard individually, one at a time [and complete] three layers.”
Each layer is shellacked and the outer hull is varnished, to keep the boat waterproof even if it should leak.
The boats’ hulls must be made entirely of cardboard, including the part anybody sits on. Styrofoam inside the boat is permitted as long as it’s not enabling the boat to float, while epoxy and fiberglass are forbidden.
THIS WAS THE FIRST year that Churchill entered two boats in the regatta. This year’s project, a whitewater kayak design, went along with Churchill’s retooled boat from last year, a narrower kayak.
Competitors include D.C. area high schools, colleges and scout troops.
Boats receive a range of awards, including the first to finish, most likely to float, and the Titanic Award for the most spectacular sink. The Titanic Award is hotly contested – “A good 50 percent of the boats sink,” said Dennis.
“We had a great day, I mean, [the students] just did a great job,” said Dennis, who also skippered the ‘04 boat and took first place in the 50-and-over race, with Saxton taking third in last year’s boat.
“I felt the most happy winning the 50-and-over,” said Zamkov. “It felt pretty good knowing those were boats that we created.”